If we have to cover the Swift-boat controversy, let's at least get it right
ASK THIS | August 25, 2004
A prediction: There will be a hiatus in coverage of the Swift boat attackers on John Kerry during the Republican national convention. After that, cable TV — that is, Fox, CNN and MSNBC — will go back to the story, in full fury. After all, is there any other campaign news worth covering?
By Barry Sussman
Q. Swift boat opponents of John Kerry and some others, such as former Senator Bob Dole, are attacking Kerry for antiwar testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1971 in which he made references to atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. Were there such atrocities?
Q. Kerry testified about the cutting off of ears and heads. Is there any way of knowing if that happened?
There's no doubt that American soldiers committed atrocities of the kind Kerry spoke of in his antiwar Senate testimony. There was the My Lai massacre, which was widely in the news at the time and had been the subject of a highly publicized trial. That there were such atrocities is sad but undeniable.
Only a few months ago The Toledo Blade newspaper won a highly publicized Pulitzer prize for a 2003 series on atrocities in Vietnam. It dealt with a seven-month rampage in 1967 by an elite group known as the Tiger Force.
The day the series began, Oct. 22, 2003, an article in The Blade stated, "Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed – their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs…Two soldiers tried to stop the killings, but their pleas were ignored by commanders…The atrocities took place over seven months, leaving an untold number dead – possibly several hundred civilians, former soldiers and villagers now say."
Note please the reference in the above paragraph to "ears and scalps severed for souvenirs." That's part of the testimony the anti-Kerry ads focus on, and it sure looks harsh. But it happened.
The Army launched an investigation into the Tiger Force atrocities in 1971. It concluded, after 4-1/2 years, that 18 soldiers had committed war crimes.
These atrocities and others are common knowledge, yet as of this writing we've noticed only one journalist, Al Hunt, who has connected the dots. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed column in August, Hunt pointed to the Blade series as an obvious refutation of charges that Kerry was betraying fellow veterans by talking about atrocities. If we've missed some others, we apologize. But going with the facts isn't the most noticeable aspect of this coverage, by and large. Where is most of the news media?
One of the first Showcase items to appear on this Web site was a Q&A with the executive editor of the Blade, around the time his paper won the Pulitzer.
Here's a question for editors:
Q. Are the news media focusing on Kerry's Vietnam War record to the exclusion of more important, relevant issues in the presidential campaign? What should reporters and editors be looking at instead?
A note sent to this Web site says, "Kerry needs to focus more on the economy, job loss, deficit creation, balance of trade and those issues - he is now mired in a rather unproductive debate - though it may ultimately prove conclusive - on war records against someone who has none."
The issues cited in the note, along with terrorism and the war in Iraq, are obviously what the campaign should be about. Kerry has been talking about them to a great extent, and he probably will continue talking about them, endlessly. But voters, like the person who wrote the note, may not notice because it's the news media that control the debate by determining what they choose to write about and show on TV.
Two news organizations, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have done outstanding independent reporting following the charges against Kerry. (Both have also been doing solid reporting on other campaign issues.) A third newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, published a first-person account by one of its own editors, a Swift boat commander who served alongside Kerry, defending Kerry and laying into his critics.
But even good reporting on this issue is destructive: As long as the media focus on trumped-up, hateful, personal charges, important campaign issues don't get the attention they deserve. This is what Kerry's attackers want, obviously. It serves the purposes of President Bush, who has made no effort to stop it. One news organization, Fox News, can be counted on to breathe life into this story the moment it starts to flag. The likelihood is the other other cable networks will follow, as they have until now.
What about the rest of the news media? Will they, as might be expected in a presidential campaign, focus instead on the record of the incumbent president and more current issues of who can better handle terrorism, the war in Iraq, a record of setbacks in Afghanistan, and the run of vital domestic economic and social issues?
Strong candidates overcome adversity and it's up to Kerry to deal with the criticism. He invited some of it by making his war record so central to his campaign. But if news organizations are going to spend day after day and week after week on a single issue, I can think of many far more important than this one.
In an online column posted Aug. 25, Matthew Miller, a syndicated columnist, posed the problem for news organizations this way:
"Calling all Swift boat veterans!" he wrote. "It's time to rescue your nation from its debauched public debate. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: leave no bamboozled media outlet behind!"
"…If you're Karl Rove, the real point is managing the news agenda and the terms of debate. There is only a finite amount of space on page one and a finite amount of time on the evening news. If you can get the New York Times to devote page after page to swift boat accusations - - and then fill the cable channels with wall to wall "debates" over the same - you've displaced what might otherwise have been covered.
"In short, you've won."
Barry Sussman is the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project. He is the author of The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, now in its fourth edition.